To restore his waning authority among MPs and the public, the prime minister needs to learn to look before he leaps into another crisis. He is trying to do too much
On the doorsteps of North Shropshire, Liberal Democrat canvassers are calling it “the curse of Peppa Pig”. Boris Johnson’s shambolic speech to the CBI has been noticed by voters who see it as further evidence of his incompetence.
Although the Lib Dems claim some momentum amid a very soft Tory vote, it’s too soon to say whether they can overturn Owen Paterson’s 22,949 majority in the 16 December by-election caused by his resignation. But the Chesham and Amersham by-election showed that anything is possible; even a “bloody nose” result in which the Tories narrowly survived would be bad news for Johnson in a contest triggered by his ill-fated attempt to save Paterson’s skin.
As if Johnson didn’t have enough problems after his woeful three weeks, his increasingly fraught relationship with Rishi Sunak is his latest headache. In Sunak’s eyes, he provided £90bn for rail projects in the north and Midlands but Johnson’s usual over-promising transformed last week’s announcement into a negative. But in Team Johnson’s eyes, the chancellor turned two key, vote-winning policies sour by cutting £14bn from the rail plan and £750m from social care reforms.
This summer No 10 was furious that a letter outlining Sunak’s opposition to foreign travel restrictions was leaked. Johnson “joked” about demoting his chancellor – one of his “many a true word” jests. Then came what Whitehall insiders dubbed “the Budget of two halves” in which Sunak boasted about the spending increases demanded by Johnson but later changed gear to his personal credo, promising that any spare money in future would go on tax cuts.
Today the tensions have risen to a new level with the suggestion from Johnson allies that a Sunak aide was behind an incendiary tweet by the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg quoting a senior Downing Street source saying: “There is a lot of concern inside the building about the PM. It’s just not working.” Treasury aides point the finger at No 10.
No doubt Johnson and Sunak will soon appear together in public with made-for-TV smiles all round. But the smiles will be painted. The latest outbreak of hostilities is serious because it is about Johnson’s entire modus operandi rather than a policy decision.
Can a weakened Johnson afford to lose a second chancellor? Probably not. So Johnson and Sunak will muddle through, again. But parallels with the constant outbreaks of the “TBGBs” in the Tony Blair-Gordon Brown era are growing: the leader-in-waiting next door thinks the top man is making a mess of it and wants to move in.
Although relations today are not yet as bad as they were between the Labour friends-turned-rivals, Sunak poses a real threat to Johnson because his team’s criticisms are shared by a growing number of Tory MPs – and they have the power to force Johnson out. A few have reportedly written letters expressing no confidence in the prime minister. Only a trickle, and a long way short of the 54 names needed to trigger a confidence vote in him as Tory leader, but another brick out of Johnson’s once impregnable wall.
Many Tory backbenchers grumble about an “amateurish” No 10 machine. The rumour mill suggests Dan Rosenfield, a former Treasury official, might leave his job as Johnson’s chief of staff amid claims he lacks political nous. Such criticisms miss the point. Advisers are only any use if their advice is listened to. Johnson prefers to trust his own instincts; after all, they won the EU referendum and 2019 election. What we now see is that the immense daily pressure of being PM requires more than that.
The $64,000 question is: can the leopard change his spots? Unlikely, but not impossible. Johnson is ruthless about power and must now sense it is starting to slip from his grip. He has dismissed William Hague’s sensible proposal for an inner cabinet of senior ministers, which might well have prevented some of his recent mistakes. It’s not Johnson’s style; ministers grumble that they often learn about big decisions when they are already set in stone.
To restore his waning authority among MPs and the public, Johnson needs to learn to look before he leaps into another crisis. He is trying to do too much, often with three or four speeches or public engagements in a day (even with a bad cold); far better to do a few things well than several badly. Johnson’s strengths in the good times have become his weakness in the hard times every prime minister faces. Context is all.
If Johnson had delivered the CBI speech just after last month’s Tory conference, when he was riding high, he could have laughed it off. The media would have had a fun story about Peppa Pig, not a serious one about the PM’s deepening crisis. But now he’s on a bad run, the speech reinforced the impression Johnson has reached a tipping point.
It’s not over yet, but he needs to stop the rot, and quickly.